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Extract from “Covenant and Conversation” Family Edition By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Parashat Emor

Emor focuses on two kinds of holiness: that of people and that of time. Chapter 21 relates to holy people: priests and above them, the high priest. Because the priests serve in the Mishkan (the portable Temple), there are certain things they are forbidden from doing. For example, they are not allowed to come into contact with a dead body, and they cannot marry whomever they like.

Chapter 22 reminds us of similar laws relating to ordinary Israelites when they wish to enter the Mishkan, and then lists which imperfections would prevent an animal from being offered as a sacrifice.

Chapter 23 is all about holy time, and discusses the festivals of the year, including the three pilgrimage festivals (the shalosh ragalim) of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

Chapter 24 speaks about the Menora, which was lit every day, and the show bead, which was renewed every week. The parasha ends with a story – one of the only two stories of the book of Vaykra – about a man who cursed during a fight.

There is something very strange about the festival of Sukkot, of which our parasha is the main source. On the one hand, it is the hag most connected with joy. It is the only hag in our parasha that even mentions rejoicing: “And you shall rejoice before the Lord you G-d for seven days” (Vaiykra 23:40). In the Torah as a whole, joy is not mentioned at all in relation to Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, or Pesach, only once in connection with Shavuot, and three times in connection with Sukkot. Hence its name: zeman simhatenu, the festival of our joy.

Yet the sukka actually replicates one of the more challenging aspects of the wilderness years: “You shall live in booths for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that future generations may know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your G-d” (Vayikra 23:42-43).

For forty years, the Israelites lived without permanent homes, often on the move. They were out in the wilderness, in no-man’s-land, where it is hard to know what to expect and what dangers lie in wait along the way. To be sure, the people lived under divine protection. But they could never be certain in advance whether it would be forthcoming and what form this protection might take. They were experiencing a prolonged period of insecurity.

How then are we to understand the fact that Sukkot, of all festivals, is called zeman simhatenu, the festival of our joy? It would have made sense to call Pesach- freedom’s birthday – the festival of joy. It would have made sense to call Shavuot – the days of revelation at Sinai – the festival of joy. Why do we give that title to a festival that commemorates forty years of exposure to the heat, cold, wind, and rain? Remembering all that, why should we feel joy?

The sukka symbolises living with unpredictability. Sukkot teaches us that faith is not certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. And despite the uncertainty, we can still rejoice!